Remembering Pope Benedict’s Challenge

Religious values still nourish secular liberalism.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the late Pope Benedict XVI was not to the church, but to secular society’s understanding of itself. He opened up what had been a siloed discourse by challenging prominent philosophers, such as Jürgen Habermas, to reflect on whether the liberal democratic political order that guarantees individual freedom and the possibilities of pluralism can generate the normative sources of its own existence, or if those values remain grounded in pre-political suppositions drawn from religious foundations.

Benedict, both as Pope and before that time as Cardinal Ratzinger, questioned whether secular reason alone can unconditionally affirm the dignity and rights of the person without resorting to the transcendent invocation that every individual is equally worthy in their being as a likeness of God.

Habermas is most well-known for his theory of “communication community,” whereby reasoned deliberation among citizens alone establishes the legitimacy of democratic institutions and the rights they confer. For Habermas, “systems of law can only be legitimated in a self-referential manner” by reaching consensus through “legal procedures born of democratic procedures” without appeal to some metaphysical justification.

It is precisely at this claim that Benedict directed his doubts: “The ‘end of metaphysics,’ which in broad sectors of modern philosophy is imposed as an irreversible fact,” he once wrote, “has led to juridical positivism, which today especially has taken on the form of a theory of consensus: If reason is no longer able to find the way to metaphysics as the source of law, the state can only refer to the common convictions of its citizens’ values, convictions that are reflected in the democratic consensus. Truth does not create consensus, and consensus does not create truth as much as it does a common ordering. The majority determines what must be regarded as true and just. In other words, law is exposed to the whim of the majority and depends on awareness of the values of the society at any given moment.” 

If this is the only basis of law, what if the majority wants to persecute a minority? Or, to bring the question up to the latest controversy of long-termism, what if a society embraces genetic selection to breed the resilience of the strong and weed out the weak? Benedict asked: “By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident—herein lies the real challenge for democracy.” 

In yet another meditation he comments: “If our culture seeks to build itself only on the basis of the circle of its own argumentation, on what convinces it at the time, and if — anxious to preserve secularism — it detaches itself from its life-giving roots, then it will not become more reasonable and purer, but will fall apart and disintegrate.” 

The philosopher Leszek Kołakowski put this same case pithily when he argued that “culture, when it loses its sense of the sacred, loses all sense.” 

For Benedict, then, human rights must be grounded in something deeper than the consensus of democratic societies arrived at through deliberation, namely in the “prima veritas” of God-given natural law revealed through reason.

By virtue of this human nature, he argued, certain truths are inalienable. This is implicitly acknowledged, as Benedict pointed out, in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which presupposes a sense of “unchanging justice” irrespective of how political regimes, democratic or otherwise, might codify it. The U.N. declaration, he observed, is “the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples. … Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.”

The Saving Translation Of Religious Values In Secular Society

In response to these arguments, Habermas makes clear that philosophy cannot accept the pre-suppositions of revealed truth. But he is compelled to concede that the benchmarks of Western civilization — liberty, conscience, human rights, democracy — are indeed rooted in its Judeo-Christian heritage. “To this day, we have no other options,” he has written. “We continue to nourish ourselves from this source.” 

For Habermas, secular reason may derive from this metaphysical foundation, but departs from it even as it “appropriates” it. “It is true that the work of appropriation transformed the originally religious meaning, but without deflating or weakening it in a way that would empty it out. The translation of the notion of man’s likeness to God into the notion of human dignity, in which all men partake equally and which is to be respected unconditionally, is such a saving translation. The translation renders the content of biblical concepts accessible to the general public and people of other faiths, as well as to nonbelievers, beyond the boundaries of a particular religious community.” 

While the state must retain its secular character in democracies, he concludes, secular society must be open to religious influence. Secular citizens, he writes, “are obliged not to publicly dismiss religious contributions to political opinion and will formation as mere noise, or even nonsense, from the start. Secular and religious citizens must meet in their public use of reason at eye level. For a democratic process, the contributions of one side are no less important than those of the other side.” 

The Religious Imagination

As our Enlightenment civilization looks within itself to find a moral compass to guide it through the audacious advances in science and technology it has fostered, from the re-design of the human genome to artificial super-intelligence, questions of the religious imagination will only be further stirred. As Henri Bergson saw it, modern humans are technologically adept giants with puny souls. “In this body, distended out of all proportion,” he wrote, “the soul remains what it was, too small to fill it, too weak to guide it. This enlarged body awaits a supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical.” 

Like Benedict, his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, saw the danger in this vacuum: “It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity,” he wrote in “Fides et Ratio.” “This in turn makes it possible to erase from the countenance of man and woman the marks of their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope.” 

If we no longer believe in the link between the person and the sacred, whether through revelation or reflected through Habermas’ “saving translation,” the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological power. 

Then we will be tempted to ask, with T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? … The cycles of Heaven in 20 centuries / Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.” 

But the story may not end there. The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz, a confirmed conservative Catholic,  had the intuition that the discoveries of quantum physics might reestablish the connection between the subjective reason of secularism and the objective reason claimed by revealed religion. The theory of quanta, he reflected, is “anti-reductionist, for it restores the mind to its role as co-creator of the fabric of reality. This favors a shift from the belittling of man as an insignificant speck in the immensity of galaxies to regarding him as the main actor in the universal drama — which is a vision proper to every religion.” 

[For further reading to explore these issues, see the excellent volume “The Power of Religion In The Public Sphere,” a collection of essays by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Cornel West with an afterward by Craig Calhoun. Also see the written exchange between Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion.”]